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posted: 8/3/2014 5:45 AM

Protein: Why it's so popular right now

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  • A recent campaign stressed how much protein a glass of milk provides. Recent trends show people want to eat more protein.

      A recent campaign stressed how much protein a glass of milk provides. Recent trends show people want to eat more protein.
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By Jennifer Van Allen
Special To The Washington Post

When milk marketers went searching for a replacement for their notorious "Got Milk?" campaign, they asked 2,500 teens and adults what promise would make milk more appetizing than juice, water or soda.

Calcium fell flat.

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So did the idea that milk was the "original superfood."

And what about the fact that milk is a great value at just 25 cents per glass?

Meh.

The resounding winner: eight grams of protein per glass.

And thus a $50 million "Milk Life" campaign was born this year, featuring kids and adults happily at play with the pledge that "This is what eight grams of protein can do."

Indeed, protein has never been more popular. Enticed by the promise that it can help you lose weight, get stronger and avoid age-related muscle loss, some 71 percent of consumers say they want more of it in their diets, reports the NPD Group, a New York research firm.

And retailers are rushing to add protein to foods such as cereal and granola bars, and promote the naturally high-protein content of foods such as nuts, beef jerky and Greek yogurt. There's been a 54 percent increase in the number of new products with a high-protein or vegan claim since 2008, according to Mintel, a Chicago research firm. Just in the past year, there was a 49 percent increase in snacks making high-protein claims, Mintel says.

I couldn't help but wonder: Why did protein suddenly become the nutrient du jour? And will it be just another diet craze -- a la the fat-free frenzy of the 1980s -- that ultimately leaves us all whiplashed with confusion about why we spend so much time and energy dieting, and yet are further than ever from our feel-great weights?

For sure, we consumers are gluttons for dieting advice, especially advice that focuses on a specific supernutrient that promises to make extra pounds and health problems disappear. Some 51 percent of adults want to lose weight, according to a Gallup Poll, yet barely half that amount -- 25 percent -- are actively working on it.

So why is protein trending now?

Scientists have long known that protein builds lean muscle mass and provides a feeling of fullness that can aid in weight loss. A raft of recent studies linking protein-rich diets to weight loss have kept that idea in the spotlight. In recent years, the rise of Paleo, Atkins, the Zone and other low-carb diets have helped sustain protein's MVP status.

And protein's popularity might have more staying power than other food crazes, says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for the NPD Group.

In contrast to the fat-free, sugar-free and gluten-free fads, which all revolve around restraint and avoidance, the current obsession with protein has to do with eating and drinking more of it. And people like that.

"It's not restrictive," Seifer says. And because protein's benefits are so easy to explain and understand -- it helps you feel fuller longer, lose weight and build muscle -- it might be more enduring than the pushes for high fiber, whole grains and Omega-3 fatty acids that abruptly came into and out of vogue.

"Consumers just want to know, is it good or is it bad?" Seifer says. "If you can whittle it down and make it simple for the consumer, the trend could take off."

But, interestingly, even as the public clamors for protein, some 71 percent of consumers don't actually know how much they should get, or what foods have it, according to the NPD survey.

The average healthy person needs about 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight, according to U.S. Agriculture Department recommendations. And most people are already getting enough in their normal eating regimes.

"It's not a nutrient that's of grave concern," says registered dietitian Andrea Giancoli, a policy analyst for the Beach Cities Health District in California. "Protein in and of itself isn't going to make you into a supermodel, get you to your ideal weight or make you into a lean, mean machine. You actually have to exercise and do the work to build that muscle."

What's more, if you eat more protein than you need, it's just going to get stored as fat. That's where the larger potential problem exists, Giancoli says. In their quest to shed pounds and get strong, consumers might start eating more foods such as red meat that, though high in protein, also have lots of saturated fat. They also might reach for protein supplements and protein-enriched foods, which have additives and calories they don't need.

The addition of protein often comes along with artificial additives, plus calories, sugar, fat and sodium to make the product taste good. So it's critical to comparison-shop and carefully inspect the nutrition facts panel.

A 1-cup serving of Cheerios Protein, for instance, has seven grams of protein -- more than the four grams of protein in the original variety of Cheerios. But it also has about 100 more calories and 14 more grams of sugar.

And as tough as it is to resist the temptation of a protein-packed, and therefore guilt-free, indulgence, we have to look past the claims on the front of the label. That Caramel Nut Rush Marathon Protein Bar might have 20 grams of protein, but it also has 290 calories, 9 grams of fat and 22 grams of sugar.

"If you're consuming more calories than the body can burn off, you're going to gain weight," Giancoli says. "It doesn't matter what nutrient it is."

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